Denny Palmer isn’t a fair weather bicycle rider.
Winter or summer, he rides across Helena to his downtown law office at McMahon, Wall and Hubley on Lawrence Street. Adding studs to the tires of his commuter bicycle make winter riding possible.
He recently purchased a Devinci Spartan, a high-tech bicycle built for backcountry riding that was assembled by Steve Coen, the Montana Bicycle Guild’s president and owner of Gravity Guild Garage, a bicycle repair shop that also offers custom bicycle assembly.
Palmer traces his days in the saddle of a bicycle to his childhood spent riding Helena’s streets.
When he was old enough, he rode BMX tracks. Riding with friends was a fun way to get around town and exercise in the summer months.
The thrill and exhilaration of that first ride never left him. A bicycle has remained a part of his life.
The feeling he gets on a downhill bicycle ride, he said, is freeing.
“It’s the closest thing to skiing in the summertime,” he explained recently of what it’s like to be on a backcountry trail weaving and dodging among trees, the terrain racing past and then the occasional jump with his bicycle.
With the purchase of his newest, Palmer has three bicycles. He smiled as he said he’d probably have to sell one. He’s come a long way from the childhood single-speed, red Schwinn that was his first ride.
Bicycling is a large part of his life today, and it’s led him to friends who together created the Montana Bicycle Guild where he’s both a director and the nonprofit organization’s secretary.
The Montana Bicycle Guild was created as an organization for mountain bikers, but over time has expanded its activities. Its latest effort is the Queen City Wheel House, an organization he describes as a “bike kitchen” that will provide a place for people to learn how to repair their bicycles, learn about bike safety and take classes, among other activities.
Another of the Montana Bicycle Guild’s offshoots is the Montana Enduro Series that began in mid-May with the first of its five competitions that was held in Helena. Three of them, including the season’s May 22 opener in Helena, are in Montana. The other two are slated for Idaho and Wyoming.
Whitefish and Big Sky will host two of the three Montana events, while those at Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg, Idaho, where five enduo series will come together for a two-day competition, and the one at Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyoming conclude this year’s series.
A May 21 pre-race celebration at the city’s Vigilante Bike Park, which the Montana Bicycle Guild recently agreed to manage, was planned to kick-off the Helena competition.
“We always keep a race in Helena since that’s where we’re based out of,” Palmer said.
Palmer said partnerships, like the one with Great Divide Ski Area, where ski patrollers provide emergency medical services on the Helena race course, help make the Enduro Series possible.
The Montana Bicycle Guild’s mountain biking races are capped at 100 participants, which is about what a course can handle in a single day, Palmer said. Most of last season’s Enduro Series competitions were sold out, and about 20 people were on a waiting list for a place in this year’s Helena competition.
Limiting the number of riders also allows race organizers to first work on improving the quality of the races rather than increasing capacity just because they can, he added.
The Enduro Series and the Montana Bicycle Guild’s work to promote the sport of mountain biking has more than just recreational value for the city, Palmer explained, because the sport’s economic benefit to Helena is conservatively figured at $3 million annually.
Helena has gained an international reputation in the realm of mountain biking. In 2015 it was awarded a silver ride designation by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which lauded the city for its roughly 75 miles of trails available for mountain bicycling from 20 trailheads.
“To top that, Helena offers free shuttles that run five days a week, taking you to the best trailheads in the South Hills Trail System, as well as to the top of the Continental Divide to access the iconic Continental Divide Trail. Farther east, the Trout Creek Canyon-Beartrap Gulch loop navigates steep limestone canyons. Plus, Helena offers a vibrant in-town cycling scene,” the association’s website said of what the city offers for mountain bicyclists.
Many of the trails start and end in the city’s downtown, Palmer said, so that too helps bring new business into the community.
Mountain bicyclists come to Helena in the spring when other trails are still covered by snow, as the trails here are generally open sooner each year for recreation, Palmer said.
Mountain bicycling is a relatively new recreational activity, one that wasn’t considered by the Forest Service 30 years ago when it planned for future use of the forest.
“Now it’s huge,” he said. “It’s a driving force of Helena’s economy.”
The Montana Bicycle Guild, in addition to its work maintaining trails and organizing events, has also given the sport a voice in planning for future management of national forest lands, Palmer said.
Having that voice in the discussion is important because Helena is a destination for mountain bicyclists, he noted.
The Montana Bicycle Guild is appreciative, he added, that the Forest Service is willing to include it in discussions.
“We want to see responsible use and continue to build on what we have,” he said.
“You want to be able to do it right. And you want these trails to last.”
Doing it right for him means working with the Prickly Pear Land Trust and the Forest Service on behalf of trails.
And because the community is seeing more people arriving because of the mountain bicycling opportunities, the community needs to consider future use when planning trails, Palmer said.
While the Montana Bicycle Guild advocates for mountain bicycling, it also recognizes conflicts between cyclists and hikers on city trails. Its efforts to address those problems focuses on both those who ride as well as those who walk.
It encourages hikers to be aware of mountain bicyclists, Palmer said, but it also urges cyclists to be ambassadors of their sport, aware of those who are walking and to yield to them when possible.
However, the Montana Bicycle Guild encourages all trail users “to say hello and even give a high-five as you pass by on the trail,” Palmer said. “It’s hard to be angry when you get a high-five.”
The Montana Bicycle Guild doesn’t actually have members. Its meetings are open to the public, Palmer said, adding “if you want to get involved and show up at our weekly meetings, come.”
What Palmer gets in return for his time and effort on behalf of the sport is enjoyment and a sense he’s helping accomplish something.
“At the end of the day, it’s fun,” he said.
“I like the people. I like staying involved. I like trying to make this a better place to ride, live and do business,” he added.